Look, this is what happens: Steve Carell runs into Juliette Binoche in a bookstore, and she thinks he works there and so asks him for help finding a funny book, cuz she’s depressed and needs cheering up. “Something human-funny” is what she wants, not “making-fun-of-other-people-funny,” and he helps her, in a genuinely sweet and smart meet-cute scene, because he’s besotted from the moment he sees her, and how can he not be: she’s Juliette Binoche, fer christ’s sake. He picks out books at random and convinces her that they’re all funny in exactly the way she needs, and she falls for it — not that it’s in any way scammy or sleazy or less than sincere — cuz he’s clever and cute and funny himself, and geez, here’s a guy who knows books.
The point is, that bit about “something human-funny” is a bit you want to hate right away, because it’s so clearly a description — the screenwriter hopes — of his screenplay itself… or, less a flat-out description than a desperate plea for you to see the movie this way: as charming and real and messed-up in a gosh-darn delightful way. But as it turns out, I had to forgive Dan in Real Life that bit of self-indulgent please-like-me anxiety, because, gosh darn it, it actually is human-funny in a way you want a movie to be, if you can’t stand the fake, forced, inhuman “funny” that passes for romantic comedy these days. *cough* Knocked Up *cough*
In fact, if you can manage to get through Dan in Real Life without falling madly in love with both Binoche and Carell — who, man, is really, really adorable when he’s in indie-funky Little Miss Sunshine mode and not in Hollywood-sellout Evan Almighty mode — then you’re a better man than I am, Charlie Brown. I pretty much fell in love with everyone here, not in spite of but because of the fact that they’re all hilariously human — chaotic and confused and aching for love and connection even when they deny that they are. God, I didn’t even hate Dane Cook here, and I hate Dane Cook.
See, completely unwittingly, Carell’s Dan has managed to fall in head-over-heels love-at-first-sight with his brother’s (Cook: Mr. Brooks) new girlfriend, whom the brother, Mitch, has brought along to the massive family reunion in one of those ridiculously wonderful New England places where families play touch football and make pancakes en masse and are generally more absurdly cool and goofy than anyone’s real-life family ever is. And for all that the vast majority of romantic comedies never get it quite right in all the ludicrous ways they come up with to keep the inevitably made-for-each-others lovers apart for 90 minutes, this one makes sense: Dan, a widower who makes his living writing a newspaper self-help column, is an actual decent guy, and he can’t find it in his heart to horn in on his brother’s happiness, even if it means giving up the possibility for himself. So he keeps his distance from Binoche’s (Breaking and Entering, Chocolat) Marie, and aches and pines and makes himself (and everyone around him) miserable in the process.
It is, in many ways, almost a carbon copy of the plot of the similarly themed The Family Stone — if you liked that one, and if you liked the life-is-one-disaster-after-another family dramedies of Home for the Holidays and Pieces of April, the latter of which is also from Dan director and writer Peter Hedges, then Dan is for you. But it’s a carbon copy only in the sense that, shit, life really is a mess, and love is a mess, and who would have it any other way?